— By Lorna Crozier
Not many hotels have a beware-of-dog sign on the wall between the breakfast café and the lobby.
It’s one of the many charms of the Sidney Pier Hotel & Spa. This warning is softened by the “muffin-eating canine” reference that follows – an introduction, if you will, to Dave, a rather chubby, six-year-old black lab that became the hotel’s mascot after failing the last of several guide-dog tests.
Guests can take him for a walk, certainly a perk for travelers like me who miss their animals, but the desk clerk tells me that Dave doesn’t always want to go for a stroll, and when he does, he plots his own course.
I wonder how many guide dog tests he actually passed. Are they being kind in saying he failed only one? It’s lucky he’s so endearing.
A hotel, of course, needs more than a pooch to recommend it. How about the etched glass panels on the walls by Coast Salish artist Chris Paul, the orchidaceous bouquets in the lobby, the elegance and practicality of the rooms. My husband and I delighted in our seafood specials in its classy Haro’s Restaurant, and the next afternoon in the hotel spa, our massages made us fall in love with our bodies again.
But maybe the best thing about this hotel is its setting.
Right on the harbour, the Sidney Pier Hotel & Spa is the last building on the north side of Sidney’s Beacon Avenue, if you don’t count the café and fish store at the end of the pier. Seven blocks long, Beacon is a shopper’s paradise with nine—count them—nine bookstores, and galleries, bakeries and one-of-a-kind boutiques—like Marmalade Tart (women’s wear), Bubba Loo (children’s clothing), and Waterlily Shoes.
Bronze figures sit on bronze benches along the street, and other sculptures stand at the shore or greet you on the long sea walk. Part of the magic of Sidney is the small-town friendliness (population around 12,000) and the rarity of no mall in sight.
You’ve got to wonder why visitors to Vancouver Island bypass my hometown and head off to Victoria as if we didn’t exist. Sidney is less than ten minutes from the ferry and the airport. Restaurants, as well as shops, abound. Crowded with locals, Sabhai Thai is one of our favourites along with Haro’s. So is Maria’s Souvlaki. The food’s better at Maria’s than in Greece.
Then there’s the Star Theatre, a cinema that takes you back to childhood with its smallness, its old-fashioned lobby and inexpensive popcorn. And on rainy afternoons, you can spend the day at the Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre, a watery dream world of creatures from the Salish Sea.
Inside the small aquarium, I met creatures I’d never seen before, the nudibranch, for instance. A shell-less snail, it could be mistaken for a gorgeous, slightly wacky blossom. I learned that a barnacle has the largest penis in the world (not that it matters), if you take into account its body size. And that a wolf eel mates for life.
My favourite critter is one I long to sweep across a page if I could do that without harm. Called a sea pen, if it feels threatened it emits a cold green light. It looks like a quill, the kind Shakespeare used to create the beautiful Ophelia.
On our final day of three playing hometown tourists, we push off from Canoe Cove, ten minutes north of town, with Brian Smiley who operates EcoCruising Tours and Charters. His pontoon boat looks like a greenhouse that broke free from its moorings to embark on an ocean voyage. Because of its shallow draw, it can go where only paddlers venture. Brian calls it “kayaking from a couch.”
It’s a kind of Zen alternative to whale watching: we’re not heading out to see anything in particular. We’re going nowhere and seeing stuff along the way. Travelling on the water like this, sometimes drifting with the motor off, leaves the smallest sandy footprint.
We’re simply fellow creatures as we move slowly among seals, oyster catchers, cormorants and eagles. When the boat turns to head back to the cove, Sidney rises in the distance.
Eco-cruising is another way to see the town. Low along the shore, Sidney looks like an imaginary city the ocean made up – shimmering with moisture and soft, rain-coast light.
Soon it might vanish in the mist. There’s a fragility to its beauty, and right now, for this moment, we’re the only humans around. The only ones who see it from this perspective.
Everything seems in balance – the ocean and its creatures, the town, my husband and I, side by side, feeling the miracle of being here out of the chaos of crowds and cities.
In retrospect, maybe Sidney should be kept a secret a little longer. Don’t come here. You won’t like it.
Editor’s Note: Our writer was hosted by our tourism partners. They did not review or edit this story before publication.